Tag Archives: technology

Would You Pay For An Ad-free Internet? I Would. And Some Other Thoughts On Noise.

This is not the first time I’ve ruminated about ad block. But it’s on my mind today.

I can’t remember when one of my savviest of tech savvy friends turned me onto ad block software, but it was a watershed moment; I immediately installed it on everything I own and never looked back. I’ve changed the specific program over the years (originally it was the classic Ad Block, though these days I favor uBlock), but regardless of the specific program, it’s always the same goal. I want a clean, minimalist, distraction-free browsing experience.

In fact, I didn’t realize how bad advertising clutter had gotten until I borrowed a co-worker’s terminal to cover her service point (public library term, basically, an information desk) and used a browser without ad block.

I am not exaggerating when I say that it felt unusable. Videos started autoplaying, forcing me to choose between keeping the sound muted and being able to hear important alert notices and phone calls through our call routing software. Things crawled and slid and demanded that I interact with them in some way to get them out of the content. Worst of all was the ads that seemed intentionally built to create an accidental click; trying to close it instead opened a new link to whatever product or service was being peddled. It was awful and it made me retreat to my own station with my clean, quiet, distraction-free experience.

It was a painful realization for someone who works with information professionally, but here it is; the greatest information pipeline in human history is filled mostly with garbage. Fortunately, you can put a filter on your particular tap to remove the junk, akin to using a Brita filter when you don’t trust the quality of the local water.

I actually have a strong feeling of revulsion to most forms of advertising. I hate it. I hate the noise that it represents.

When I was a kid, the television (televisions, really) was the electronic hearth around which life revolved. As far as I can remember, the television was on. My parents watched it. My brother and I watched it. We all watched it. Even if no one was watching it, the television was usually on, as something to be “listened to” or even just as “background noise.”

Our first computer was located in the kitchen/breakfast table area. There was a television in this room, too. I recall when I started to write, when I wrote my first complete manuscript for a terrible fantasy novel, I learned to tune out the noise around me with what felt like superhuman focus. But there was always so much noise.

I haven’t had cable television in my life in probably ten years. This was never done as some sort of act of defiance; I never made the decision to become a “cord cutter.” The rise of digital delivery, a la carte downloading, and other services created a much more powerful incentive for the consumption of content. The fact that it was ad free (because I was either paying for the individual episodes or for the subscription service itself) was just a bonus.

This is how it’s been for so long that I forgot how noisy the rest of the world is.

I came to realize how much noise I’d filtered out when I went back to Tucson to visit my family earlier this year and spent a few days at my brother’s house and then a few at my mother’s. Once again, cable television with all its commercials, all its ads, all its noise, was back in my life. Even at my mom’s place, with her candles, crystals, peaceful demeanor, and adorably ancient cat . . . there was still the television and the noise.

It was a powerful lesson in how noisy life is and how much energy we spend ignoring it. Because make no mistake, even if you don’t consciously notice the noise, even if you can tune it out with superhuman focus as I did, your body is still experiencing it. Your ears are taking in the sound waves and your brain is filtering through the massive amount of data it ingests to prioritize what it believes to be the most important bits and so much exposure to this barrage of junk sound mean it all gets chucked into the spam folder . . . but that doesn’t mean it’s not still being ingested.

I resent it. I resent the bandwidth advertising consumes. I despise the cognitive tricks that are deployed to co-opt my reason and manipulate my emotions. I know enough to know that I’m not immune to these techniques; that they are crafted by people who devote their considerable intelligence to this purpose. I am not immune; thinking otherwise simply means you’re easier to manipulate.

I treasure silence. It’s hilariously stereotypical, considering my profession, but there it is.

Let’s return to the Internet and all its mental noise.

I understand why ads exist. I know that everything we do online has a cost and if I’m not paying for a service or product directly, it’s because I am the product. Ads are the price of admission. It’s the model that we’ve gotten used to. But it’s one that I’m sick of. I’m so sick of it that I pay money to keep ads off my site, because I don’t want anything I do to  help contribute to that flood of noise. It’s worth it to me.

I don’t think content should be free. Content has value and content creators should be compensated for their time and effort.

Many sites are switching to subscription models or donations or other options to pay for premium, ad-free experiences. And this is a good step, but it’s so fractured, so disjointed, that it wasn’t until I started seriously doing personal budgeting that I realized how many different goddamn subscriptions were sipping away at my finances. Things I’d used and forgotten to cancel. Things I used a few times a year. So many things. It’s too much mental bandwidth to responsibly manage all of those things, to do the mental math of deciding each and every time “how much did I use this site or that site this much? How much was this worth to me.”

The model I would use would be similar to my current cell provider, Ting. Each month, I use a certain amount of data and text messages. There’s a neat little meter that tracks it on my account. At the end of the billing cycle, they say “you used this much data,  you owe us this much.” And I pay that amount. You might also recognize this model as the one you get through your electric bill or your water bill or almost any other utility.

Websites already track your shit. All those cookies we mindlessly agree to are little troves of data to be bundled up, packaged, and sold, so that the commercial engine of the Internet continues to turn. Again, there is nothing on the web that is free. If you’re not paying for a product, you are the product, or more accurately, your information is or your viewership or whatever other metric advertisers are measuring.

So that’s what I want: a meter that tracks how much I view each site each month and then calculates a value and from that total bill, pays out whatever dividends my consumption of that content would have represented in terms of ad dollars. I want it manageable from one central location, instead of having forty different subscriptions charging me a dollar each.

I recognize that this model may not be possible right now. Who decides how much each site is worth? What if one site decides it costs me five dollars per page and another says it’s 10 cents? It obviously would require an entire paradigm shift and at the core, what I’m really saying is that I want to pay more money than I already do.

Because, let’s be honest; the current model is actually fine for me. I block the ads, I get the content, the cost of having me as a viewer is subsidized by all the people who aren’t blocking ads. In fact, it’s better for me if ad block never goes mainstream, because if too many people start using it, it will fail for everyone. Content providers will see their revenue dry up and then something must be done. I already have noticed an uptick in the number of sites that just flat-out deny access if you have ad block running.

But this does not feel ethical or right. This idea shows up in philosophy a lot. Kant’s categorical imperative and the prisoner’s dilemma come to mind as possible examples.

So there we are. I’m an Internet parasite. I’d like to change. But currently it’s not easy enough or rewarding enough to do so, so I don’t.

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Review: The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale

The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the TaleThe Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale by Susan Maushart
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First, an observation; if you want a particularly surreal reading experience, read a book about forgoing screens on an ereader or tablet device, as I did. As the author describes giving up the iPhone, iPad, other i-prefixed devices, you can reflect on how for you do to likewise would mean not being able to continue reading. It’s a weird feeling.

Anyway, author Susan Maushart decides her family is too wired, too jacked in, too tuned in, etc. and decides to Thoreau (hah!) all away for six months of digital exile. It’s an interesting idea that gains a fair bit of traction when you read about various family members falling asleep with their devices; even as a ferocious gamer and person who spends most of his day tied to a screen at work, the Maushart house’s level of digital dependency felt extreme.

And yet. And yet.

It’s not going to come as a surprise that Maushart’s decision to cite Mark Bauerlein’s “The Dumbest Generation” immediately dropped my estimation of this book (for those who haven’t been reading my reviews that far back, Bauerlein was one of my most scathingly negative reviews I’ve ever posted). Maushart walks a finer line on the topic, but eventually she succumbs to the same age-ism of Bauerlein and points out that “no, things really were better in my day” even after pointing out that every generation since Socrates was “ruined” by whatever new technology came along (for Socrates, it was the written word and literacy that were ruining the youth of Athens). Many of the things that Maushart seems certain of about the relative merits of her youth to her kids’ youth seem to be little more than the trap that we all fall into as we get older.

Returning to the point about the fact that I read this book on a tablet; my larger problem with Maushart’s disconnection experiment is that never once is the subject of the content itself addressed. This isn’t a “well, just watch the documentary” argument, it’s good for you (most studies have shown that watching documentaries has a negligible positive cognitive effect), but instead realizing that not all screen time is created equally. The reality is that we are never again going to live in a society that is not infused with technology and as much as I love Walden Pond, a Thoreau-like existence is not feasible on a large social scale. Rather than trying to go without, we should be learning techniques to manage the role of tech in our lives.

Also, the fact that, despite all the amazing personal gains and achievements made during “the experiment,” very few pages are spent talking about the aftermath once the screens came back led me to believe that the effects were short-lived. Was the son still practicing his instrument religiously after the experiment was over? The book doesn’t say.

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Review: Steve Jobs

Steve JobsSteve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“This is going to be a warts-and-all biography. I’m going to tell it like it is! No sugarcoating! But the thing is, the person in this biography has no flaws! Let me tell you how the person I wrote about is absolutely perfect, who has only the sorts of flaws that seem to make this person even better.” Yeah. How many times have I read that introduction? How many authors have promised to give all the whole story and then delivered a glossy highlights reel rather than the real thing?

I’m pleased to say that Walter Isaacson did no such thing. He promised us an intimate portrait of a brilliant, driven man who could be cold, could be ruthless, could be manipulative. Isaacson delivered on that promise.

I’m not going to go into the details of Jobs’ life; that’s what this book is for, after all. Instead, I want to tell you about the book itself. And the thing I want to tell you most is that the book is very, very good and you should read it.

I also want to tell you that I read this book on my Microsoft Surface tablet and that I’m about as dedicated a Microsoft fan as they come (ZUNE FOREVER!!!!) I’m not an Apple man. I might be in the future (ALMOST picked up an iPhone this time around, but the high price point eventually drove me off), but when I read this book, it was deep in the throes of my Windows devotion. So that’s the kind of person who is giving this book five stars. The kind of person who Steve Jobs would denigrate, were he among the living. The kind of person who doesn’t buy his products, hasn’t ever watched a product reveal, a person who doesn’t find the term “reality distortion field” as something that’s charming.

And yet. And yet.

I still love this book. I loved reading about Jobs’ life. I love tech, and love him or hate him, Jobs shaped the tech world as we know it today. Most of all, however, I loved Isaacson’s writing style. I loved his approach, the exact perfect balance between fly-on-the-wall, recounting Steve’s own voice while sometimes inserting his own editorial voice to counter some of the claims made by the reality distortion field. It’s the best kind of biography, because it’s not a monument, not a tribute, not an ode or a paean, it’s simply the story of one’s life. That’s a rare treat in and of itself, but it’s made all the more special because of the care Isaacson shows his subject. You can feel the exhaustive level of research that went into every page.

After reading this book, I’m absolutely certain I would never have wanted to work with Jobs (not that I have the technical skill to do so anyway, I won’t flatter myself). I’m not particularly certain I’d ever even like being around him, reality field or no. But I spent the past weekend with him and I am better for it. I’m better for having read his story as the world is better for having his influence through his work and his legacy. I can think of no higher recommendation than that.

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Review: Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal

Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and BetrayalHatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal by Nick Bilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A taut, well written, and gripping narrative about the rise of Twitter and the intrigue that led to a Game of Thrones-style power struggle, although without the head lopping. As a narrative, it’s excellent and excellently readable, although I can’t help but wonder about author Nick Bilton’s personal allegiance.

This is a story with pretty clearly defined heroes and villains and Jack Dorsey is definitely the book’s villain. He’s credited as having provided interviews which led to the writing of this book, although the author notes that not all interviews were necessarily happy to provide them. If he wasn’t displeased before, I can’t imagine he’d be happier now, because Bilton pulls no punches in how he depicts Dorsey as an egomaniac, a manipulator, and a Steve Jobs wannabe.

On the one hand, this is troubling; one expects such an account to be as neutral as possible. And while Ev (the other main player in the Twitter power struggle) has his own flaws, they’re usually not depicted as severely as Jack’s. It’s possible that these two men really are that different, but it still feels like we’re meant to root for Ev and feel hurt by the betrayal that ousts him from his own company. So does the work succeed, even though it doesn’t feel neutral?

On the other hand, this book is written really, really well. It’s a hell of a tale and it’s a rare talent that can turn board room politicking into exciting drama. The emotional content of the book is above and beyond any other “corporate narrative” I can recall; this book is many things, but it’s not dry. It is a quintessential ‘can’t-put-it-down’ read.

My personal recommendation? If you’re reading this to make a judgment about Jack Dorsey’s personal character, or if you’re, say, writing a research paper about Twitter . . . I’d hesitate to consider this one a source. My feeling coming away from the book is that there are two sides to every story and this book is only one side.

On the other hand, it’s damn fun, full of highs and lows, and it explains the genesis of Twitter perfectly; the early days of the Fail Whale, why the damn site crashed all the time, why it all felt like it was cobbled together with superglue and wishful thinking (because it really was), and all the other quirks that have become part of Twitter’s character and its charm. From the inability to actually explain what exactly Twitter is (even the creators disagree!) to its evolution from “What are you doing” to “What’s happening,” if you’re a Twitter user, this is a book you’ll want to pick up. Even if you’re a Twitter agnostic, or even just Tweet-curious, it’s a fine book of corporate narrative drama that delights and entertains.

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A Not-So-Live Post From The Not-So-Wilderness

This post is being typed in offline mode. It’s Sunday, February 9. I’m sitting on a cold bench in a little campsite just outside of Payton, Arizona. There’s a fire going beside me and the sun is setting; already, the light has gone from “hey, it’s getting dark” to “the only light source is your laptop!”

Hilariously, although I don’t have Internet access out here, I do have three bars and my 3G connection on my phone. This is an unusual luxury for me since normally I tend to operate in areas where the cell coverage is best defined as “hell, no.” We’re not really in the wilderness here, though. The main road into town is about twenty feet from my tent and there’s a Wal-mart less than two miles from here. I know it’s two miles because we stopped there to get those enviro-logs for the campfire.

Like I said, this is a little bit different than what I’m used to. Having a laptop along is another difference, if you were wondering. Fortunately, the laptop is running on battery power. If I was able to plug this thing in, I think that’s the point in which I’d call it quits and just go stay at the nearby best Western.

My phone insists that the temperature is still 57 degrees. It certainly doesn’t feel like 57 degrees at this point. I can see my breath when I exhale and I’m wearing all my layers. The forecast calls for 37 degrees as the low tonight. That will be fun. I’m not overly worried; I’ve done winter camping before, with varying degrees of success. My sleeping bag is rated to 10 degrees. I’ll be fine.

A coyote just howled from somewhere off to my right. Pretty cool.

Does it sound like I’m miserable? That I’m questioning why I’m sitting here in the dark, illuminated only by the glow of a laptop screen, with a Best Western a scant two miles down the road? I’m not miserable. The truth is, I love this stuff.

I love being outside. I love the funny little ways that nature and technology intersect and dance around each other like middle schoolers at the spring dance. No wireless, no electricity, but you still have Internet access! And you have coyotes. The park bulletin board said there were bears in the area. Bears tend to not make much noise, though.

All I really want is for my phone to admit that it’s not the brisk 59 degrees that it currently claims. It’s also not “mostly sunny,” since the sun has already gone down in this part of the world.

In some ways, camping so close to a town is an unusual experience for me. I’m virtually always either backpacking to some remote destination in the mountains or camping in some site that’s three hours away from a town. Having civilization nearby is strange. I’m not sure if it’s comforting to have that as an escape route (if the camping is miserable, there’s a hotel nearby!) or ends up making me feel more forlorn. Hard to say.

I can’t say I’ll post this when I get back to civilization, since we haven’t really left. It would be more accurate to say that I’ll post when I have an Internet connection again. It’s funny; compared to the shoddy WiFi we had at last night’s cheap motel, I think I prefer having no internet access at all. Because at least then, it doesn’t get my hopes up before half loading a page and then crashing. Maybe not, though. We’ll see how I feel when I’m bored in my tent in a few hours and I can’t get Facebook to load.

Oh wait, my smartphone still works. I think I’m going to be fine.

Signing off now from the not-so-wild wilderness.